Join me please in welcome back the Vorkosigan Saga Reread, my loving tribute to the exquisite science fiction series crafted by Lois McMaster Bujold. This week I finish the last two chapters of Ethan of Athos, the book which doesn’t really feature our usual protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, but does well enough for all of that. It’s really all denouement, but a satisfactory one, at least.
Ethan goes to visit Quinn in the Minimum Security detention blocks, passing through security checks without incident but feeling vaguely guilty anyway. He encounters Captain Arata outside the infirmary, who tells him that Quinn’s managed to settle her fines, and is just waiting for her medical release. Ethan says he just wants to ask her a question.
“As did I,” sighed Arata. “Several. I trust you will have better luck getting answers. These past few weeks, when I wanted a date, all she wanted to do was trade information under the counter. Now I want information, and what do I get? A date.” He brightened slightly. “We will doubtless talk shop. If I worm any more out of her, maybe I’ll be able to charge our night out to the department.” He nodded at Ethan; an inviting silence fell.
Ethan wishes him luck. Quinn had concocted a story which managed to fit all the available evidence while omitting any mention of Terrance Cee, or even Okita, claiming the Cetagandans had been trying to capture Quinn to program as a spy against the Dendarii. The Bharaputrans were in their embassy negotatiating their deportation. Arata laments pointedly that he can’t use fast-penta without a court order and leaves. Ethan looks around Quinn’s room and wistfully notes the lack of openable windows.
“How do you feel about windows that open?” he asked Quinn. “Downside, I mean.”
“Paranoid,” she answered promptly. “I keep looking around for things to seal them up with. Aren’t you going to ask how I am?”
Quinn is mostly fine, a little bruised and her dislocated arm in a sling, back in her Dendarii uniform and only a little stiff. She asks how he feels about women now, and he says about the same as she feels about windows. She admits she did get used to windows, but she was always a thrill-seeker. Her first downside experience, though, after a lifetime of dreaming about warm ocean breezes, brought her down into a blizzard. Ethan sympathizes, and Quinn points out that his ability to empathize with others is a rare and unexpected quality for an Athosian.
Ethan nervously asks Quinn if he may make an unusual, and possibly offensive, request. He tells her that he’s going to continue his quest for ovarian cultures, probably on Beta Colony, but, in the circumstances, he asks her if she’d like to donate an ovary to Athos herself. Quinn is quite surprised by the request; Ethan assures her that it’s painless, and Kline Station has all the facilities he needs. Quinn assures him that she has one to spare, and confesses that she’d been expecting a much different proposition from him. Quinn asks who could make use of her donation, and Ethan says anyone could; she could have a hundred sons in a year, though of course no daughters. Quinn muses that her line of work isn’t conducive to parenthood, but that she’d never get to see her sons. Ethan said he could probably push his influence to sending her a holocube if she wanted, or half-seriously suggests she could impersonate a man and sneak down to the planet herself.
Quinn notes that Ethan is even cheekier than Arata was, especially since he doesn’t over her anything in return. She wonders if the planet can handle a hundred little Quinns, and Ethan assures her that potential fathers are screened very carefully. She agrees to the donation.
After the operation Ethan and Quinn meet in a small cafe. Quinn says the operation was, as promised, quite painless, and there’s not even a scar; Ethan says the culture is taking quite nicely, so in 48 hours or so he’ll be leaving for Beta Colony. Quinn says she’ll be leaving that night, before any more trouble with the Stationers, or the Cetagandans. She does reassure Ethan that Millisor had informed his superiors about Helda’s destruction of the cultures before his death, though they will still be looking for Terrence Cee. She had ample reports for Admiral Naismith, and all that remains is Cee himself, who appears at the cafe himself.
Cee delivers a refrigerated box, containing a tissue sample, and three data discs to Quinn, who laments that Cee isn’t joining the Dendarii after all. Cee says his choices have opened up, thanks to her, and Quinn reminds her that the offer will remain open. Quinn says she’s managed to find another recruit, a migrant worker who oddly enough manages to look a lot like Terrence Cee, which should help throw off the Cetagandans’ trail. Cee isn’t sure where he’s going himself, except away from Cetaganda. He suggests that Quinn conceal the box, and she says she has a good idea on how to do that.
Quinn arrives at the Cold Storage station with a freezer transport box and asks for her newts, and they needn’t bother thawing them since she’s shipping them frozen. While they’re waiting, Teki comes in with an urgent disposal, and is a little put out with Quinn for his experienced at the Cetagandans’ hands, though he admits that his girlfriend, at least, was sympathetic about his sufferings. He pleads with her to tell him what was really going on, and Quinn promises, as soon as it’s declassified; she says goodbye, since she’ll be leaving in a few hours.
Teki notices Ethan and apologizes for what Helda did. He says he’s been promoted to her post, at least until she returns from medical leave, but Quinn assures him that the “leave” is permanent. Teki heads off to throw out his canisters; Ethan and Cee follow, curious, while Quinn waits for her newts. Ethan confirms for Teki what Helda had done with the shipment. Ethan asks about Teki’s canisters, and Teki tells him that they’re samples of contaminants that have been disposed of, which they’re storing outside the station in case they need them for legal or medical reasons. Teki bags up the canisters, labels the bag, then passes it to a robot who takes it out through an airlock. Teki opens up a wall panel so they can watch it take the bag to tether to one of the many projections on the station’s surface.
“It’s like the universe’s biggest closet,” mused Teki. “Our own private storage locker. We really ought to clean house and destroy all the really old stuff that was thrown out there in Year One, but it’s not like we’re running out of room. Still, if I’m going to be an Assimiliation Station head, I could organize something . . . responsibility . . . no more playing around . . .”
The ecotech’s words became a buzzing drone in his ears as Ethan’s attention was riveted on a collection of transparent plastic bags tethered a short way down the grid. Each bag seemed to contain a jumble of little white boxes of a familiar type. He had seen just such a little box readied for Quinn’s donation at a Station biolab that morning. How many boxes? Hard to see, hard to count. More than twenty, surely. More than thirty. He could count the bags that contained them, though; there were nine.
“Thrown out,” he whispered. “Thrown—out?”
Ethan silently points out the bags to Cee, who after a moment begins to swear under his breath. He tells Ethan that he recognizes the boxes, and can even make out the House Bharaputra labels on them. Ethan says that Helda must have put them outside without leaving any computer records, “throwing them out” where they’d never be found. Frozen in the vacuum, Ethan thinks that they should still be good.
“We’ve got to tell Quinn,” Ethan began.
Cee’s hands clamped down over Ethan’s wrists. “No!” he hissed. “She has hers. Janine—those are mine.”
“No.” Cee was trembling white, his eyes blazing like blue pinwheels. “Mine.”
“The two,” said Ethan carefully, “need not be mutually exclusive.”
In the loaded silence that followed, Cee’s face flared in an exaltation of hope.
See, I told you they weren’t gone… Just a matter of semantics, a minor dialectical difference, which was enough to convince the Cetagandans that they were. I wouldn’t have been quite so confident that Helda wouldn’t have screwed them up in some other way just to strike a final blow against Athos, but if she was trying to be surreptitious about it she might not have had the opportunity. Or she might not have thought it necessary, since they were being left unlabelled in a gigantic space storage locker. It was, admittedly, sheerest chance that Ethan happened to spy them and recognize them for what they were. If he’d decided to hang around with Quinn, for instance, he wouldn’t have seen a thing. So while a lot of the other seemingly bizarre plot twists have reasonable explanations once you know everything that’s going on, this one is truly random. But I’ll forgive the author for it, because it’s such a nice twist that helps out that nice Ethan boy.
We’ve only seen a few glimpses of Arata, and I don’t even really remember him from previous reads, but this time through I’m slightly intrigued about him. I think that Miles Vorkosigan would have enjoyed meeting him, sort of like Dag Benin, depending of course on the circumstances. If it had been a Miles adventure, I’m sure Arata would have turned up earlier, but Elli and Ethan spend more time trying to evade the attention of Station Security, or at least Elli does, so we have to wait until most of the way through the book. Pity.
As Ethan and Cee approach the surface of Athos in a shuttle, Ethan points out landmarks to his companion. Cee asks what kind of welcome Ethan is likely to get, and Ethan says his mission was fairly secret, to keep from alarming people, but at least some of the Population Council should be there, as well as Ethan’s father, and possibly Janos as well. Ethan wonders how Janos will react to meeting Cee, if he’ll be jealous enough to start doing the work to fight to be Ethan’s designated alternate.
Cee regarded his hands meditatively, and glanced up at Ethan. “And will they view you as a hero, or a traitor, in the end?”
Ethan admits that he’s been praying for guidance on the subject. Ethan’s cargo is strapped to seats near them, rather than being left to the vagaries of the cargo hold; the other passengers, crew members heading for downside leave and the census takers, are keeping their distance. He did buy some cultures on Beta Colony as well, to keep the Cetagandans off the scent, but they swapped those for the Bharaputran ones and hid the Betan samples in Ethan’s luggage. He says that somebody had to make the decision, and the Population Council would probably have been unable to make up their minds, but it needs to be all or nothing, or else it would tear the planet apart. Except, of course, for the “EQ-1” culture he took from Quinn, but he figures it’ll average out in the long run. Cee points out that he’s hedging his bets with the Betan cultures, but Ethan says that while he couldn’t bring himself to throw them out entirely, he hopes to splice the telepathy gene into them over time as well, once he’s risen to head up a Reproduction Centre, or even farther.
The welcome committee turns out to consist largely of Rep Centre representatives eager for their new cultures, but Dr. Desroche, the Chairman, and Ethan’s father are all there. Ethan downplays the problems he encountered. His father comments on his paleness, and Ethan explains that on Kline Station he couldn’t go outside, on Beta Colony everyone lives underground, and they only spent a week on Escobar.
Ethan suddenly notes Janos’s absence and asks his father about it. Ethan initially fears the worst, a lightflyer crash, but his father explains that Janos went a little wild after Ethan left, and ended up running off to the Outlands to live on the frontier with fewer restrictions. Ethan is somewhat relieved, and says that it’s probably for the best that Janos find out what he wants before committing himself to parenthood.
He turned to Terrence Cee, his grin escaping control at last. “Here, Dad, I want you to meet someone—I brought us an immigrant. Only one, but altogether a remarkable person. He’s endured much, to make it to refuge here. He’s been a good traveling companion for the last eight months, and a good friend.”
Ethan introduced Cee; they shook hands, the slight galactic, the tall waterman. “Welcome, Terrence,” said Ethan’s father. “A good friend of my son’s is a son to me. Welcome to Athos.”
Emotion broke through Cee’s habitual closed coolness; wonder, and something like awe. “You really mean that . . . Thank you. Thank you, sir.”
That night, on the verandah of Ethan’s father’s house, Ethan tells Cee that the best way to earn the rights to Janine’s children is earn his parental duty credits through public works, done over and above regular employment. Ethan takes the plunge and says that he makes enough for two himself, especially with the prospect of promotion ahead of him, and once Ethan has his own sons, then he’d love to have Cee has Primary Nurturer, which is a great job for accumulating duty credits. He admits it’s not an adventurous life compared to Cee’s experiences up to then, but it would be good experience for Cee’s own children, and Ethan would be happy to be Cee’s Designated Alternate as well.
Cee says that after what his adventures have put him through, something quiet sounds just right. He mentions to Ethan that he was under the impression that the Designated Alternate relationship was kind of like a marriage, and wonders if he would expect sex to be part of it.
“Well . . .” said Ethan. “No, not necessarily. D.A. arrangements can be, and are, entered into by brothers, cousins, fathers, grandfathers—anyone qualified and willing to act as a parent. Parenthood shared between lovers is just the most common variety. But here you are on Athos, after all, for the rest of your life. I thought, perhaps, in time, you might grow accustomed to our ways. Not to rush you or anything, but if you find yourself getting used to the idea, you might, uh, let me know . . .” Ethan trailed off.
“By God the Father,” Cee’s voice was amused, assured. And had Ethan really feared he would surprise the telepath? “I just might.”
Before going to sleep, Ethan takes a moment to think of Elli Quinn and EQ-1, and then of Dr. Cynthia Jane Baruch, his own “mother”, who had been hired to provide her genes to start out Athos. He whispers her a quiet salute and prepares to face the future.
So did Cee take himself some tyramine on the shuttle? Because he seems to be fairly telepathic in this chapter. I guess it would no longer be that dangerous a substance to buy on Kline Station, although if someone from Cetaganda followed up and found traces of it before Ethan’s ship left… I guess if Cee were smart, he’d buy it before Elli left with his lookalike so it still wouldn’t be traced back to him. Or was it just an author goof to toss in some telepathic incidents so Cee could find out that the Athosians were really on the level? Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt for now.
The way Dr. Cynthia Baruch’s name is revealed at the end, I almost expect it to be a reference to something else in the series, the way Miles’s grandmother’s name appears, or “Admiral Naismith” himself. Of course, it would have to be something long predating the series proper, like a short story farther back in the timeline, or maybe Falling Free or something, but according to the Vorkosigan Companion it isn’t. The significance of the name is not so much of the name itself, as it is the shift in his attitude toward being able to appreciate women as people, and to think of Baruch as being his mother. Of course, it’s unlikely that his own attitudes are likely to change much, because even a planet of telepaths won’t be able to find out too much about people they never actually meet…
How is Ethan going to explain all these extra cultures, by the way? The Betan ones, that is? Is he just going to insinuate them in quietly, or pretend to receive them as another shipment later on? How will he explain how he paid for them? Or maybe he could just explain the matter once the crisis has died down a little, and maybe the Population Council will be grateful that, if they had to pay for two batches of cultures, they actually ended up with two of them in the end.
One hopes that Ethan and Terrence will still be around when the first telepaths begin to come of age, and I suppose they’re young enough that it might happen. Athos does have some access to galactic medicine, even if it is a bit of frontier world, so lifespans should be in line with at least Barrayar, if not Beta Colony. And, if you think about, Terrence’s kids will be telepaths as well, since he already carries the gene, so they’ll have two recessives and it’ll be fully expressed. Their story could be interesting…
I’m still not sure how I feel about this book. It has its gripping segments, and a fast-moving plot, once it gets started, but it has a slow beginning, and Ethan isn’t the most capable or resourceful of characters. Also, the telepathy idea, while intriguing, never feels quite fully formed. Terrence Cee never makes full use of it, because of the limitations the author put on it, but its impact, even on a remote planet, is likely to be shattering. And let’s not forget the likelihood that the Cetagandans will, in fact, rediscover it. As a standalone book, that’s not bad, though it does seem to require a sequel to see where it comes out in the end, but as an adjunct book to a series, it feels like it should eventually come to dominate the plotline unless the author just decides to cop out and ignore it.
Kline Station is a good and well-realized setting, in a way that is usually reserved for planets, space stations being some kind of fragile, utilitarian appendage never gone into in such detail, and seeing Elli Quinn in her native element is a helpful delineator of her character for later books. She isn’t really a major character in the Miles books for too long, but this book more than hints at how she rose from faceless mercenary.
And that’s it for Ethan of Athos! When I return in two weeks, it’ll be time to return to Miles in “Labyrinth”. It looks like I’m going to do that novella in three parts, since it divides fairly well, if not perfectly, into chunks of approximately the right size. But I will take a week off in between, so see you at the end of July…